Straight Outta ’88: Vitter’s Willie Horton Ad


The 1980’s are back in style: from Straight Outta Compton to one of my favorite teevee comedies in a long time, The Goldbergs. I’m worried that Culture Club will experience a revival. Here’s a warning: if you sing Karma Chameleon at me, I will kick you where it *really* hurts.

Not only are the ’80’s back in pop-culture, they’re back in the Gret Stet Goober race courtesy of the latest Bitter Vitter attack ad. David Vitter has never, ever run a positive campaign. It’s what happens when all you believe in is yourself and the hollow rhetoric of “conservative reform.” Vitter is a political demon hunter, if he can’t find any he creates them. In his pre-Congressional days, his primary foils were Edwin Edwards, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee, and even Republican Governor Mike Foster. All of his campaigns have been harshly negative including the Congressional race to succeed Bob Livingston. It was a race only a GOPer had a chance to win:

John Treen has never forgiven Vitter for his unrelenting attacks against his brother in that 1999 election, after Vitter and [former Governor] David Treen, at Vitter’s initiative, agreed not to attack each other. Keeping that deal was important for Treen, who was known among Democrats and Republicans alike for his honest and honorable approach to politics.

Vitter, however, went on the attack, according to John Treen and two others who were part of that campaign, in fliers with different messages to white and black voters that the Treen campaign found far outside the bounds of fair play.

“To distort my brother’s record, I thought, was despicable,” John Treen said, adding that his brother, who died in 2009, never fully recovered emotionally from the defeat. “The idea that someone made a deal and broke his word got to him.”

Time for some background. In 1979, Dave Treen became the first Republican since Reconstruction to be elected Governor of Louisiana. He was one of the founders of the modern Gret Stet GOP, but despite that was famous for being nice. I met Mr. Treen several times and he was a warm and friendly man who was appalled by David Duke’s rise to elected office. In fact, his brother John ran against Dukkke in the State House race that the Gret Stet Fuhrer Wannabe won. That happened (where else?) in Jefferson Parish in what many locals call da Metrys. This is all very incestuous.

Back to the 2015 runoff election. Team Vitter has fired the first shot and, characteristically, it’s aimed below the belt. Holy mixed metaphor, Batman. It’s a 1980’s style CRIME IS SCARY and OBAMA & EDWARDS ARE SOFT ON IT teevee commercial complete with a “thug” in a do-rag:

The ad hits all the low notes. It’s classic Southern Republican dog whistling. Here, fido. Here’s the transcript courtesy of CenLamar:

Voting for Edwards is like voting to make Obama the next governor of Louisiana.

Want proof?

Obama dangerously calls for the release of 6,000 criminals from jail. Edwards joined Obama, promising at Southern University he’ll reduce 5,500 in Louisiana alone. 5,500 dangerous thugs, drug dealers, back into our neighborhood. Edwards even voted to allow felons to receive taxpayer funded pensions.

Obama and Edwards, wrong for Louisiana.

The ad also shows JBE speaking at Southern University in Red Stick. I cannot imagine why. Actually, I can: it’s the largest historically black university in the Gret Stet. OMG, he knows those people…

All of this reminds me of the 1988 Presidential campaign. Poppy Bush was viewed as a genial lightweight who sold his soul to Ronald Reagan to be Vice President. Michael Dukakis had a huge lead after the Democratic convention where he made a near fatal mistake by saying, “This election is about competence, not ideology.” It was a vestige of losing 4 out of 5 elections including 3 landslides. Strom Thurmond disciple Lee Atwater decided to throw that notion back in Dukakis’ face by running one of the dirtiest campaigns in American history. He got away with it because of the media’s “both sides do it” notion. We call it false equivalency now.

Atwater had wingnut consultant Alex Castellanos put the hit out on the Dukakis campaign, which resulted in the now infamous Willie Horton ad:

There was a second, equally effective attack ad entitled Revolving Doors:

People were scared shitless of crime in 1988. It was the era of crack cocaine and the Columbia drug cartel’s “criminal invasion” of United States. It was never as bad as many thought BUT it was bad enough to lead decent essentially liberal pols like Joe Biden and Bill Clinton to enact laws that are now seen as OTT punitive. I refuse to say Draconian. Leave Poor Draco alone, y’all…

As for my countryman, Michael Dukakis, he overestimated the intelligence of the American people and refused to respond to these attacks. That refusal was a dagger through the heart of the Dukakis-Benstsen campaign. It taught a generation of Democratic handlers to respond quickly to even the most specious attacks. A lesson that was forgotten in 2004, alas.

That brings us back to Vitter’s “John Bel Obama” crime ad. It’s straight out of the ’80’s but will it work in 2015? In recent years, the worm has turned on the “tough on crime” laws passed during the Reagan and Clinton administrations. Many Republicans, including some damn conservative ones, are advocating sentencing reforms that will result in fewer non-violent drug offenders rotting in jail. The Vitter ad is, of course, not aimed at thinking people but at fake tough guy conservatives who are afraid of crime and think that all black folks are criminals. I’m not sure that this line of attack will be as effective in 2015 as it was in 1988. That will be one of the central questions that the runoff election will turn on.

For his part, John Bel Edwards has responded quickly in an interview with Lamar White Jr:

“And of course they seized upon the fact that I talked about the same matter at Southern, in an effort to inflame folks. They take it out of context. If you looked at the entire video (of my speech) and saw what I said before and what I said after that statement, you would know that I am not talking about releasing any inmates.

“I’m talking about adopting new strategies that have been successfully adopted in other conservative states like Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia to reduce the number of inmates they’re having to keep in their prisons. And to save money. You can do it without threatening public safety. But you do it with working with the sheriffs, with the DAs, with the secretary of the Department of Corrections.


“This is what other states have down. We should not aspire to be number one in the nation in incarceration rates. I’ve talked to the Secretary of the Department of Corrections. (He says) that would require us to reduce our inmate population by 5,500, and then we’d be number two to Mississippi.


“They took one statement that I made at Southern, tweaked it out of context, isolated it from what was said before and what was said after, and now, they’re making this claim.

“But it’s the typical sort of thing that David Vitter does. And the more desperate he is, the more egregious these types of things are going to become.

I’m glad to see Mr. Edwards is prepared for incoming mud. Mudslinging is what Vitter has always done and it’s all he’s got left. We’re about to learn whether the OBAMA, OBAMA, OBAMA meme will work in a statewide, as opposed to a Federal, election in 2015. I have my doubts but I’ve been wrong before. Just remember: 50% plus one vote will win this election.

Finally, my Louisiana comrade in arms, Bob Mann, has an excellent piece on this very subject at Salon. Check it out, y’all.

3 thoughts on “Straight Outta ’88: Vitter’s Willie Horton Ad

  1. I know that folks are sensitive to slurs or stereotypes of their states. I’ve heard Kansans, Texans, Floridians, and Carolinians (North and South) protest that the dickweed politicians coming out of their states don’t represent all the residents. Louisiana is no different, and I’ve learned a lot over the years about Louisiana from reading the posts here.

    So I pose this question in all seriousness and without trying to bad-mouth every Louisianan everywhere: Vitter is a practiced, veteran politician, using gutter tactics; why does he think this is a good move if Louisianans find such politicking distasteful? How confident is Vitter that these ads will push him over the 50% mark in the upcoming election?

    1. It may well work but he’s *extremely* unpopular right now. Plus his policies are *extremely* unpopular because they’re just like PBJ’s. I think it’s going to be a squeaker, that’s why I closed with the 50% plus one vote wins. Who turns out will, as always, be decisive.

  2. Obviously a little distracted — fyi, the little feline’s doing ok for now (he’s back home as of yesterday, with a second round of treatment next week) — anyway, to try to distract myself… Not that this is terribly original, and I guess it’s just repeating what you posted, but it’s now a matter of who voters hate worse — Vitter (and by extension, Jindal) or Obama. I’ll bet Edwards himself gets kind of lost in the fray.

    I’m a little worried about what I’d call an anti-(Tom)Bradley effect. Voters who hate Vitter had plenty to choose from in round one, but now it’s either him or the Democrat…they might tell a pollster one thing, but in the voting booth…

    On the other hand, Mann, yourself, and others have a valid point — a solid GOTV drive in Orleans and EBR, combined with voters who just can’t stand Vitty (and I’m still wondering just who CAN stand him? Angry, bitter people, I guess); anyway, that combination could work. It’d sure be nice.

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